Building is Believing: Norway’s Stave Churches

Norway today is a very Christian country. The king sits at the head of a national church, supported by the state, and most Norwegians–although they might not attend every Sunday service–will be baptised, confirmed, married, and buried under its aegis. At the same time, however, contemporary Norwegian society remains not only aware, but also proud of its pre-Christian forebears, the pagan warriors and seafarers who populate the saga literature and skaldic verse. These legacies–Christian and pagan–have played an enduring role in the shaping of a Norwegian national identity, and point to the importance of the Middle Ages to the texture of Scandinavian history.

The Heddal Stave Church, in Norway, is one of several reminders of the country’s early experience with Christianity. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Middle Ages itself, and the 10th-13th centuries in particular, were a time of great change in northern Europe, as previously pagan lands began the slow process of Christianisation and adopted cultural norms from the Christian heartlands. In the area which would become Norway, exposure to Christianity probably began rather early, in the 5th century.

Only much later, however, did individuals like St Anskar (who lived from approximately 801-865 C.E.) make concerted efforts to convert the North, sending Christian missionaries to places like Denmark and beyond. Throughout the following century, intensifying contacts between Scandinavia and continental Europe–in Viking raids, peaceful trading, and political intrigue–increased exposure to Christian ideas and society. King Håkon of Norway, for example, spent much of his young life fostered as a hostage in the court of the English King Æthelstan, and reputedly brought several Christian clerics back to Scandinavia with him in the mid 9th century.

Other kings, including Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldson, intensified political support for the new religion, so that by 1020 Norway had become at least nominally Christian.

The Kvitsoy stone cross, erected ca. 800-1050 C.E., in Rogaland.

Until this point, however, Christianity had made only a modest mark on the landscape. Stone crosses had been erected in some areas, probably to mark sacred ground, and more ‘Christian’ styles of burial accompanied them. The first clerics, though, were neither attached to parish churches nor resident in dedicated monasteries; instead, they travelled with royal courts or lived on the farms of their aristocratic patrons.

In order to fully serve Norway’s newly Christian population, though, her clerics needed churches. These buildings would enable them to administer baptism, collect tithes, and instruct their flock on the nuances of their faith’s many beliefs and rituals.

Archaeological investigations indicate that these first churches were modest timber chapels, commonly built on royal lands or near to the homes of other elites. From these small structures (which have not survived intact) Norwegian clerics expanded, both in size and in number, to create a parish network estimated to have included approximately 2,000 churches at various points.

A view into the interior of Borgund Stave Church, (Wikimedia Commons).

By far the finest of these are the stave churches, stavkirker, of the 12th and 13th centuries. Made of timber like their predecessors, the stave stave churches employed more sophisticated techniques–particularly in their foundations–to prolong the life of the building and enhance its artistry.Their construction borrowed from the stone churches of continental Europe, reproducing long naves, carved column capitols, and Romanesque themes, while also retaining the artistic heritage of the pre-Christian age.

Urnes Stave Church, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, exemplifies this fusion of disparate elements. Built in the mid 12th century, it speaks to the institutional maturity of Christianity in Norway, united under the archbishopric of Nidaros (modern Trondhjem) in 1152 and in possession of its own saints and distinctive style.

Wooden carved relief of an animal at Urnes Stave Church, in Sognefjord, Norway. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the stave churches, then, we can see the culmination of the mediaeval process of conversion begun in the early centuries of the mediaeval period. As it advanced, this process wrought a number of fundamental changes to Norwegian society, unifying it around a single God, concentrating spiritual authority in the hands of a priestly class, and bringing it within the international network of Latin Christendom.

This transformation, though led by enterprising missionaries and ambitious kings, ultimately rested upon the common population. Their own personal stories of faith and conversion, though neglected by the literary sources, can be read through the infrastructure of belief built to serve them.

Around the Web: 

Explore this map of Norway’s remaining 28 stave churches!

Take a digital tour of Heddal Stave Church!

Learn More: 

Garipzanov, Ildar H., Wandering Clerics and Mixed Rituals in the Early Christian North, c. 1000-1150′ The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 63.1 (2012), pp.1-17. 

Abrams, Lesley, ‘The Anglo-Saxons and the Christianisation of Scandinavia,’ Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995), pp.213-249.

Skre, Dagfinn, ‘Missionary Activity in Early Mediaeval Norway: Strategy, Organisation, and the Course of Events,’ Scandinavian Journal of History 23.1-2 (1998), pp.1-19.

Bagge, Sverre, ‘Christianisation and State Formation in Early Mediaeval Norway,’ Scandinavian Journal of History 30.2, pp.107-134.

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4 thoughts on “Building is Believing: Norway’s Stave Churches

    • Thanks so much, Rob! It means a lot to hear how you’ve taken something away from my writing! I am, however, very jealous of your visit to the Cloisters–I’ve been wanting to go for a while, but still have never been closer to NYC than the airport…. Was there anything you saw that was just spectacular?

      • Basically the whole thing (I go absolutely every time I go to NYC), but personal highlights are the reconstructed cloisters themselves, the herb gardens and the unicorn tapestries.

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